Graffiti: Modern art or 'urban terrorism'?

Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2015 production of ‘This is Modern Art’ in Chicago. A new Denver production by Off-Center opens March 22 in The Jones Theatre. Photo by Michael Courier.

They push the boundaries of legality, but graffiti artists challenge audiences to listen to stories of people of color

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Graffiti artists have been called vandals, criminals and even urban terrorists.

Idris Goodwin calls them “artists who push upon the boundaries of legality.”

But, they are artists, Goodwin said. “First and foremost.”

Goodwin is a playwright, break-beat poet, Colorado College theatre professor and co-author of the controversial play This is Modern Art, which will be presented by Off-Center from March 22 through April 15 in the Jones Theatre.

Idris Goodwin Quote. This is Modern ArtThis is Modern Art recounts the true story of one of the biggest graffiti bombs in Chicago history. In less than 20 minutes, and in a snowstorm, a stealthy crew spray-painted a 50-foot “graffiti piece along the exterior wall of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. The tagging began with the words “modern art” and ended with the phrase “made you look.” The work was sandblasted off the next day, but because the artists had chosen such a high-profile target, “the consequences get serious,” co-writer Kevin Coval said, and the artists had to go underground.

“They were putting out a challenge,” Goodwin said. “What is modern art? Who gets to decide who a real artist is? And where does art belong?”

Coval, editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, adopted what he calls “a journalistic verse” approach to creating the play – a form inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. “Kevin was able to get the story behind it – who they are, why they did it – and then we decided to write a play based on that information,” Goodwin said.

The play, now published by Haymarket Books, debuted in 2015 as part of the nationally renowned Steppenwolf Theatre’s Young Adult series. But no one was quite prepared for the severe critical response. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune faulted the play for romanticizing graffiti, an act he called “invasive, self-important and disrespectful of the property of others,” while Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times said the play “spray-paints all the wrong messages.”

This is Modern Art: First-day rehearsal report, photos

“Both reviews shared a common theme,” wrote national arts administrator Howard Sherman, “that the play celebrated the graffiti artists’ work without making sufficiently clear, to the critics’ minds, that the majority of graffiti art is also illegal vandalism.”

Kevin Coval Quote. This is Modern ArtThe reviews sparked a second round of heated backlash and public debate.

“The theatre community at large said the critics’ arguments were bogus and unfair,” Goodwin said. “Antiheroes are difficult, and complicated questions are what the theatre is for.”

As incendiary as the response was, Goodwin says This is Modern Art is intended to be a gateway into a larger conversation that must be had in America. Not only in the context of escalating racial tensions in America today, but in consideration of the country’s entire history. The problem certainly did not start with Ferguson, nor did it end with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem, said Goodwin, whose play Victory Jones and the Incredible One Woman Band was featured at the Denver Center’s 2014 Colorado New Play Summit.

“I tweeted jokingly: ‘I don’t know why you all are tripping. We’ve been refusing to stand up since Rosa Parks,’ ” Goodwin said. “This is not new. I don’t think we have really confronted these issues because we still don’t really know each other. We’re acquainted but we haven’t done the work that you have to do to become family. Which is learning to listen, to be patient, to forgive.”

For those Americans not of color who are struggling with how to proactively respond, Coval’s advice is simple.

“For white people, I think it’s a matter of leaving the house,” Coval said. “You have to leave the comfort of where you are. Get outside of what you read. Get outside of what you assume and begin to listen to the stories of people of color. Because they will tell a different tale from the dominant tale that continues to weave in this country.”

(Kevin Coval photo above by Nyce Life Photography.

More of our talk with Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval:

John Moore: What do you say to those who say see graffiti artists as vandals?

Idris Goodwin: There is a clear distinction in my mind between art and vandalism. They are definitely breaking the law – but I feel like that is the art they practice. And despite your feelings about the legality and the appropriateness of graffiti art, you cannot deny the boldness of it.

John Moore: What are we so afraid of?

Kevin Coval: Freedom. I think we are afraid of people being and getting free. Graffiti art calls into question who has the right to public property, and who has the right to make art. I think once disenfranchised young people of color begin to take the notion of creation into their own hands, I think that shakes the center. Graffiti artists challenge what norms are in culture, and I think that makes people uncomfortable.

(Pictured right: The graffiti left on the exterior wall of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, which inspired the new play ‘This is Modern Art.’)

John Moore: What’s at the root of all of this?

Idris Goodwin: I think this country has yet to fully own up to the hate crimes and war crimes that it, as a government, has committed against a multitude of communities of color. The shameful state of public education in this country has a lot to do with that. People have no idea of history, or of what has happened even on the soil upon which they stand. The only difference today is that because of social media and the way information travels, the dialogue is now out in the open and documented, and we’re really seeing the problem. But it’s always been there.

This is Modern Art. Photo by John MooreKevin Coval: James Baldwin talked about whiteness as a sickness; as a psychological disease that affects all people and is detrimental to the humanization of people of color. In Chicago and other cities, we continue to be radically segregated around race and socioeconomic status. White people don’t really know people of color. We imagine the lives of people of color. We fear what it might mean if we live in proximity to people of color we don’t actually know. But people of color know white people all too well.

(From left in photo above: Off-Center actors Robert Lee Hardy, Jake Mendes and Marco A. Robinson. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.) 

Idris Goodwin: One of the questions the play puts out there is the punishment for doing graffiti. Does it fit the crime? There are some cases where graffiti artists have been chased to their deaths. Now people might say, ‘Well, he was a thug.’ Really? Do they then deserve to die?

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: How has the Broadway musical Hamilton changed the game in terms of the need for the American theatre to open itself up to new forms of storytelling?

Idris Goodwin: I think it is a tremendously missed opportunity for any theatre not to embrace, on a consistent basis, a multitude of stories that really reflect the multitude in this country. If we really want this art form to live, we cannot continue to champion and exalt – and then also demonize and tear down any attempt to broaden our idea of what a play is.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

This is Modern ArtThis is Modern Art
: Ticket information

  • Presented by Off-Center
  • Written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval
  • Directed by Idris Goodwin
  • Performances March 22-April 15
  • Jones Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Cast and creatives for 'This is Modern Art' on the first day of rehearsal. Photo by John Moore.Cast and creatives for Off-Center’s ‘This is Modern Art’ on the first day of rehearsal Feb. 27. Photo by John Moore.

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of Idris Goodwin:
First rehearsal report: This is Modern Art will make you look
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company commissions Idris Goodwin for new play
Idris Goodwin is going places: From Curious’ Detroit ’67 to Denver Center
Vast and visceral: Off-Center season will include This is Modern Art
Video: Victory Jones and the Incredible One Woman Band

Bonus sample: Watch Kevin Coval’s The Crossover: